cricket poetry

A couple of people have found this blog by googling ‘cricket poetry’. Well, I have one poem of my own that features cricket, and I wandered across this (very bad) poem on th’internet, but I can’t immediately think of any others except for this one, written about 1900, which I know is very well-known in the UK but any Americans reading may not have encountered before:

Vitaï Lampada
by Sir Henry Newbolt

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

How strange and creepy is that? Everything about it seems like a parody of Boy’s Own Britishness, down to the classical tag for a title (which translates as ‘light of life’, apparently), but it’s completely unironic. And, as unsettling as the poem is, it’s actually pretty well-written. Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, described him as ‘the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language’ [i.e. East is East, and West is West. The white man’s burden. What do they know of England who only England know? The female of the species is more deadly than the male]. Newbolt has some of that same vigorous phrase-making quality. The first four lines of Vitaï Lampada have been quoted a few times in the newspapers during the Ashes because they capture the tension of a close cricket match. The first four lines of S2 tend to be avoided, but actually they have the same vivid immediacy. Compared to Newbolt, or Kipling, or The Charge of the Light Brigade, Billy Collins starts to look pretty high-falutin’. He may write a somewhat watery version, but it’s still recognisably literary poetry. Vitaï Lampada is *real* populist poetry. Scary, innit?

2 Comments

  1. 20 September 2005 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Kipling won the Nobel Prize for his poetry, and he deserved it. I’ve posted one of his poems which may surprise you.

    Nothing in Collins approaches the rhetorical and and analytical skill of which Kipling was capable.

  2. Harry
    21 September 2005 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Kipling was undoubtedly enormously gifted. I think Just So Stories is the greatest children’s book in English, which sounds like a back-handed compliment but isn’t meant to be. But his work is full of the blazing self-certainty of a Daily Mail editorial – quick to judge and slow to empathise. I think literature needs some self-doubt and ambiguity.

    The comparison with Collins was intended as one of genre, not talent. Kipling was a great populist writer; Collins is a mediocre literary one. And yes, I know that glib distinction is fraught with difficulties. But to take two of his near contemporaries, Kipling seems closer to Rider Haggard than Thomas Hardy, despite all his talent. I don’t begrudge him his Nobel prize, but I think the fall in his literary reputation is due to more than just changes in fashion.

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